Saturday, 19 May 2007

Asthma Incubus

I suffer from asthma. Lots of people do. I grew into mine, and it worsened a bit since I got older. Over the years, I have received a lot of advice on possible remedies for this from people using anecdotal accounts of "alternative" medicine.


This pencil drawing is a self-portrait I did a few years ago, called Asthma Incubus. In part, it was inspired by Henry Fuseli's classic Nightmare, (below, complete with swooning woman). I have often thought of the fractal growth of both lung bronchioles and tree branches & roots as sharing a common feature of providing oxygen and sustaining life. I wanted to show how it felt to have a symbolic demonic presence clutching at my chest. An incubus was a folkloric creature that sat on people's chests and either caused paralysis or suffocation. As a side note, I was also blacklight-sensitive blonde when I drew this.

I used to work at a coffee shop in the Beach area (or "Beaches"...a point of contention with the locals) here in Toronto. It's geographically a great area: a boardwalk, lots of parks, some streets paved with red bricks. Both my parents grew up there. It also has much higher incidents of asthma than some other areas of the city. Now, the beachers are a strange bunch. A running joke about the area is that a beacher is a WASP, who jogs while smoking a cigarrette and has a dog. In my experience, an inordinate amount of them are beguiled by alternative medicines and New Age-y experiences.

One case that comes to mind was a typical day at the coffee shop. I pulled out one of my puffers, as it was smoggy. One of our customers, a great person, suggested I start using phosphorus to treat it. I replied, "Thanks, I can ask my doctor about it, ". The customer then said, "Well...western doctors don't always trust things, you know, they only like what the pharmaceutical companies tell them. Don't worry, phosphorus is all natural."

Even back in my early twenties, I was still not the skeptic I am today. However, this was my health! I replied, "Thanks, but I should check with my doctor. What if it reacts with my other medications? Besides, mercury is all-natural too, but it's still poison." He shook his head, and went to sit down while I made the latte.

Another painting, from the Symbolist era which has long fascinated me is Ferdinand Hodler's fin-de-siecle masterpiece of dread, Night.

I believe that the medical profession makes mistakes, and I also believe it is at it's most successful time in history. I began seeing a respirologist about 8 years ago, and my twice-annual trips to the emergency room have stopped. We have tried a number of medicines, and I am able to be more active and sleep better. I know my own case is of course, anecdotal by its very nature of being one isolated case, but alternative medicine could do some actual harm. I'll trust my western-trained doctor, thanks.

I find the site The Skeptic Dictionary to be a well informed site for people looking into whether a claim has the double-blind, empirical evidence to back it up. There's a lot of unproven nonsense making people money out there, mostly riding on the placebo effect. I was impressed with the award-winning high-school essay from the Alliance for Science competition about why we should choose doctors who understand evolution. It's an important point. Read the essay, it will give you pause. The fight to keep evolution in schools is not just a topic pertaining to dinosaurs and early humans. It matters right now, for your own health.

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